The Viability of Small Scale Aquaponics in Urban and Rural Underserved Communities

2013 Annual Report for FNC13-911

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $2,915.04
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Gregory Fripp
Whispering Roots

The Viability of Small Scale Aquaponics in Urban and Rural Underserved Communities



Summary: According to the 2010-2011 American Community Survey, poverty increased in Nebraska by nearly 3%. For Black and Hispanic youth (0 to 17 years old) that poverty rate was pushed to 52.2% and 33.8%, respectively. There is sufficient income in the community to support local foods enterprise while also equipping the most disenfranchised populations to improve education, increase personal income and develop community centered solutions to significant economic, nutritional and health disparities. The lack of access to fresh, local produce and protein is an issue faced by both urban and rural communities. The ability for communities to grow their own food including a protein source, such as fish, at the point of consumption could be a critical factor in helping communities become self-sufficient while providing healthy food to their populations.

Through a collaborative, comprehensive, urban farming initiative, Whispering Roots will focus on the production and training portion of our healthy food project. Whispering Roots is expanding its highly successful school-based Aquaponics pilot initiative by scaling up its Aquaponic work to include more systems design research, crop growth research and community engagement. The fact that Aquaponics systems are closed, organic, recirculating systems requiring up to 90% less water to grow crops, speaks to the sustainability and environmental friendliness of the process.

Upon final approval of the Farmer-Rancher grant, I held planning meetings with multiple local organizations involved in this collaborative initiative including community colleges, local school districts, non-profits and 4-year universities to verify the individual roles of the participants. I then held technical meetings with industry experts to review the scope of the initiative, potential best practices, potential pitfalls and challenges. I immediately faced an unexpected challenge when high winds from a storm heavily damaged the roof of the warehouse I had planned to use for the initiative. The storm rendered our space unusable due to the multiple holes in the roof, water leakage, etc. Based upon the expected timeline for repair by the building owner, I had to seek temporary space to continue the project. Due to my relationships with schools and other local organizations, I was able to continue the work by utilizing open space available at other partner organizations. Roof repairs are scheduled to be made on the facility in the near future which should make it possible to move back onsite at some point. Until that time, the work will continue with my partner organizations. Portions of the warehouse building are still useable for tours and other activities which will be helpful when the roof is repaired.

During the technical meetings, one of my advisors suggested that I attend a Re-circulating Aquaculture Course offered by Cornell University. Using different grant funds, I traveled to New York in July of 2013 to receive advanced training from two of the top Aquaculture and Aquaponics Engineers. After completing my training, I returned to Nebraska, conducted additional discussions, analyzed the draft design and made adjustments to the initial design plans. The Cornell training also enhanced my ability to share design knowledge and best practices with other individuals interested in learning about Aquaponics.

Utilizing additional space in an Omaha school located in one of the most impoverished African American communities in the United States, the Aquaponic system was constructed. This is a Tilapia based “Flood and Drain” system utilizing a 550gph pump, PVC constructed aerator with shower head drilled cap tapped off the main pump line for additional oxygen, 10” deep expanded clay media for the grow bed, food grade liner, full spectrum fluorescent bulbs and fixtures for lighting, tank water heater and a 2:1 ratio bell siphon for drainage. Systems have been running with a pH of 6.8 -7.2 with Ammonia concentrations of approx. 0.25ppm and Nitrites <0.5ppm. Nitrates vary based amount of crops in the grow bed. Water quality tests were taken daily during the start-up phase to monitor the growth of beneficial bacteria required for Ammonia conversion. After start-up, water tests are taken as needed but a minimum of once per week. All crops are started in seedling trays using Coir and are transplanted into the system after approximately2.5 weeks.


The system has been highly successful. Students who have worked on the system have received multiple awards for their efforts involving Urban Agriculture and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (S.T.E.M.). This collaborative program is the Nebraska State Champion and National Finalist for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow S.T.E.M competition. Multiple tours have been conducted and have included individuals from urban communities, colleges, universities and organizations as well as representatives from rural school districts and the Center for Rural Affairs. Crops such as Kale, Lettuce, Beets, Peas, Swiss chard, Basil, etc. have been grown and harvested. Crop production has definitely met expectations during system initiation with good growth, flavor and quality. Fish growth has been very promising with fish reaching harvest weights of 1.5 – 2.00lbs. Crops have been grown and then donated to organizations or consumed at community events or in classrooms with extremely positive consumer feedback.

For maximum system production, producers should pay particular attention to water quality. Water hardness will affect the grower’s ability to manage pH. The pH affects the ability of bacteria to convert Ammonia to Nitrate and the ability of crops to uptake nutrients. Aquaponic systems traditionally run low on Iron, Chelated Iron is a good supplement should crops show signs of Chlorosis.

There are challenges when working in old buildings. Some issues potential growers should be aware of include the status of old plumbing (both supply and drain) within the facility, electrical wiring, heating and cooling system status and insulation. Adequate insulation plays a very important role in the viability of controlled environment agriculture in the Midwest as cold, harsh winters can dramatically increase heating costs which will reduce potential profits. If I was going to occupy the warehouse for a long period of time or attempt to scale a system up to the commercial level, all of the previously identified issues would have to be addressed prior to large system construction.


The plan for next year is to continue testing new crops and methods for increasing system production. I will take a closer look at nutrient availability, ammonia conversion and solids management. I plan to test new filtration approaches, pH management techniques and lighting situations. In addition, should repairs take place and warehouse space becomes available, I will relocate systems to the warehouse environment. Further restaurant and grocery store tests will be conducted. Thanks to a new relationship with Creighton University, we will have access to growing space within a greenhouse located in our target community which will provide an opportunity to test the growing methods we are developing under different conditions. There is no S.A.R.E. funding for that initiative. We will be using other grant funds but will expand on the work being completed as part of the S.A.R.E. Farmer/Rancher grant.


As of January 2014, I had completed 13 presentations for this initiative with approximately 514 participants. These numbers do not include my presentations at the Nebraska City Small Farm Conference, the NIFA conference, the Siouxland Garden Show, Girls Inc. or my recent Aquaponics Training classes at Iowa Western Community College. I will add that information to my totals for the next update.

My plans for next year are to continue my presentations with Metro Community College, continue teaching Backyard Aquaponics and Advanced Aquaponics at Iowa Western Community College, continue my classroom based Aquaponics instruction in Omaha Public Schools, continue Aquaponics training at Girls Inc., continue Aquaponic presentations with Bellevue Public Schools, expand our rural training to the Lyons, Nebraska area through a relationship with Lyons Public Schools and the Center for Rural Affairs, expand our reach to Native American Reservations through a new collaborative relationship with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Education Unit.